True Crime Tuesdays: There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
Helen Archer | On 19, May 2020
Every other Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
At 9.30am on Sunday 26th July, 2009, 36-year-old Diane Schuler left the Catskills campground where she had spent the weekend and headed home. In the back of her minivan were her two children, Erin (2) and Bryan (5), and her brother’s three daughters, Katie (5), Alyson (7) and Emma (8). The journey should have taken about 35 minutes. But four hours later, she drove onto the wrong side of Taconic State Highway, where she continued at high speed for almost 2 miles before colliding head-on with a car carrying a 49-year-old Guy Bastardi, his 81-year-old father Michael and their friend, 74-year-old Dan Longo. The sole survivor of the crash was Bryan, who had to be pulled out the crushed wreckage from underneath the bodies of his sister and cousins.
Initially, there was an outpouring of public sympathy. But when an autopsy showed that Diane had 10 drinks and a high concentration of marijuana in her system, that sympathy turned to anger. Award-winning director Liz Garbus began filming her haunting documentary just a few months after the crash, and it premiered on HBO in 2011, almost exactly two years to the day it happened.
The main thrust of the film follows Diane’s husband Daniel and his sister-in-law Jay, as they attempt to secure an independent autopsy, obtaining a media-savvy lawyer and an expensive investigator, and appearing on Larry King to protest Diane’s innocence. Intercut with their quest, we trace Diane’s journey from campground to crash site, with CCTV footage and interviews with witnesses. In the spaces in between, Garbus draws the story of Diane’s life, posing questions about our own assumptions and about the various repressions involved in life and marriage.
The viewer has to do much of the work themselves – very little in the film should be taken at face value. Daniel and Jay paint a picture of Diane which errs towards sainthood – the devoted wife and mother, who, seemingly effortlessly, managed a family with the same efficiency that she managed her six-figure salary job. She was organised, a hard worker, a “supermom” who rarely stopped for breath, and something of a control freak. She never complained about her husband or her lot in life – she never spoke of her deepest traumas, and if she was in physical or psychological pain, she kept that to herself too.
The lengths that Daniel and Jay are willing to go to to try to clear her name speak of a deep denial, a denial that angers the relatives of the Bastardis and Dan Longo, who are interviewed here – Warren and Jackie Hance, the parents of Diane’s three nieces, refused to be involved in the documentary, although Jackie later released a book detailing the pain of their loss. For them, there is no mystery and the cause of the crash is clear. And yet, even accepting the autopsy results, Diane’s last hours leave lingering questions.
The paradox of the suburban mom who is also a functional addict is not unheard of. But it is difficult to imagine even the most hardened drinker having the blood alcohol and marijuana level that Diane had in her system at 1.30pm on a Sunday with a carful of children. In the CCTV footage taken in the hours leading up to the crash, Diane appears to be sober. She stops at a McDonalds, where she feeds the children and buys a coffee and an orange juice for herself, then later at a gas station, where she asks for painkillers.
As she’s nearing the Tappan Zee Bridge, still en route for her home, though, something goes catastrophically awry. She is seen pulling over, getting out of her car, and leaning down as though to be sick. Several confused calls are made from Diane’s phone. Warren Hance manages to speak to his oldest daughter Emma, who reports that “there’s something wrong with Aunt Diane”. The children can be heard crying in the background. Warren tells Diane to stay where she is, that he will come and collect them. Instead, she leaves the phone on a guardrail and turns to go in the opposite direction. She enters the Taconic State Highway, heading south in a northbound lane. Witnesses recall swerving out of the way and pressing their horns, to no avail. Diane didn’t slow down or acknowledge them, seemingly focussed, keeping to her lane in a pin-straight line at high speed, until she crashes into the Bastardi’s oncoming vehicle.
What we really need to know, of course – what was going through Diane’s mind that day? – will remain forever unanswered. Daniel and Jay put forward a theory of their own, but their pursuit of Diane’s rationale is fated to failure; it speaks to the need for some sort of closure and the journey towards acceptance.
While seemingly sympathetic to their search for answers, more nuanced questions are asked by Garbus, albeit very subtly. How well can you know a person? How much of ourselves do we hide even from those closest to us? Towards the end of the documentary, the camera catches Jay Schuler as she smokes a cigarette. Realising she’s being filmed, Jay admits: “Nobody in my family knows that I smoke.” It’s a small moment in a harrowing feature-length documentary, but one that captures its underlying themes, of the secrets we keep and the lies we tell both ourselves and each other.
There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane is available on Sky Crime. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.